Don't Assume the Hispanic Vote Is a Democratic Lock

Pundits overestimate what the Latino vote will do for Democrats.

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Peggy Orchowski is the congressional correspondent for the Hispanic Outlook on Higher Education magazine in Washington, D.C. and author of Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria.

The number of Hispanics in the United States reached an historic 50.5 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. But unlike the mantra perpetuated almost daily by political pundits, their growing presence does not signify an automatic Democratic election win and a huge GOP loss.

The hype over the Democratic Latino vote ignores the fact that Latinos are the most diverse "ethnic" group in the country. Hispanics have a wide range of cultural and national backgrounds, interests, and immigration status. Their electorate has never voted as a bloc. [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

The "powerful Latino vote" mantra based on Hispanics growing numbers' also ignores the clear fact that the "Latino" demographic does not equal its electorate. Only about 26.6 million Latinos in the United States will be eligible to vote in 2012—about half the present demographic. Seventy-three percent of them are native-born Americans, and like typical Americans, only about one third will register to vote. [See a slide show of who's in and out for the GOP in 2012.]

Close to a third of Latino voters always vote Republican—between 31-39 percent voted Republican in the past five presidential elections. This includes Latinos in Southwestern states like Arizona, and Texas. In 2010, all five of the new Hispanic Congressmen in the 112th Congress are Republicans (from Idaho, Florida, Washington, and two from Texas), as is the only new Hispanic Senator (Florida's Marco Rubio), and the country's first Latina governor (Susana Martinez of New Mexico). The GOP attracts not only conservative but also moderate and independent Hispanic-heritage voters—many with centuries-long Spanish (not Mexican) histories in the Southwest and increasingly, many who are Mormons (it is estimated that by 2025 the majority of Mormons in Arizona, Utah, and maybe Nevada will be Latinos).

Immigration status and age account for most of the disconnect between the Hispanic demographic and the so-called "Latino" vote. According to the 2010 Census, at least 8 million Hispanics are legal immigrants, residing and working legally in the United States on temporary or permanent visas. But they are not citizens and so cannot vote legally. In addition, an estimated 6 million self-identified Latinos counted in the Census reside and work in the country illegally (particularly true in states with surging new Latino low-wage immigrant worker populations). [Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

That leaves approximately 36 million Hispanics in the United States who are citizens. Of those, more than 25 percent are under the age of 18, or around 10 million. That results in approximately 26 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote. In 2006, 2008, and 2010 Hispanic voters were 6.9 percent of the total vote (African Americans were 11.5 percent). Within states, according to a study by the Center for Immigration Studies, Hispanic voters made up less than 10 percent of the total vote in all but five: New Mexico, California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. (note: only California is reliably Democratic). A newly formed "Tequila Party" intends to attract young Latino voters who are disenchanted with both parties as well as the politics of La Raza, according to founder Dee Dee Garcia Blase.

When it comes to election issues however, the Latino electorate has one (perhaps surprising) thing in common: comprehensive immigration reform is not cited as their top election concern. In poll after poll since 2007, the top issues for Hispanic voters are jobs, the economy, and education. "Hispanic issues are increasingly American, not just Latino," say Democratic leaders such as Sen. Bob Menendez at a recent press briefing on Latino educational achievement.

Clearly Latinos are not automatic Democratic voters. Both political parties will have to court the highly diverse Hispanic-heritage electorate with respect. The public should be highly skeptical of pundits who mindlessly repeat the mantra that Latinos are a monolithic minority interest group.